CARL P. LEUBSDORF Clinton moves to the center

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It's no coincidence the only recent Democratic presidents were pro-defense Southern moderates.
And though Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton can hardly claim her 18 years of Arkansas residence qualifies her as a Southerner like her husband and Jimmy Carter, she seems determined to adopt the ideological stance that helped them win the White House.
Since entering the Senate, the New York Democrat has surprised many observers and worried some Republicans with a conscious effort to overcome the liberal reputation she acquired as first lady, a reputation some friends say always differed from reality.
She joined the Armed Services Committee, voted for the Iraq war, simplified her approach to health care and built ties on various issues with GOP conservatives from Tom DeLay to Newt Gingrich.
Last winter, she reformulated her support of abortion rights to stress the desirability of minimizing the number of abortions.
Broadened appeal
Some polls show she has broadened her appeal. But other surveys and comments by both backers and foes indicate serious barriers remain if she is to become the second Clinton and first woman to win the presidency.
Last week, Clinton took another major step by agreeing to lead the Democratic Leadership Council's effort to craft a mainstream agenda that the centrist group hopes will help Democrats regain national power in 2008.
It could also provide a philosophic basis for her own candidacy, should she undertake one.
In accepting a role devised by her husband's longtime DLC allies, she told a receptive audience that "it's high time for a cease-fire" among party factions so they can unite behind the kind of "positive agenda for change" that helped Bill Clinton win the presidency.
Her speech drew predictable pot shots from the left and right. The liberal Campaign for America's Future, a Democratic outfit favoring a more combative party stance, derided the DLC as "stuck in the past." The Republican National Committee renewed criticism of her as a "liberal."
And though the DLC is friendly turf for a Clinton, there were signs of the divisions she will have to surmount to win the White House.
"I really like Hillary. She's dynamic," said Jeanette Lewis, a Denver-area school board member. "I'm just not sure the country's ready for her."
"I don't think there's any middle ground about her," said J. Paul Vance, a Waterbury, Conn., alderman and congressional hopeful. He said she would certainly win the nomination if she ran, but he was unsure about the general election.
Others said Clinton could bridge party rifts and attract moderate independent women.
John King, a black county commissioner from South Carolina, called her "the glue that would keep the party together," especially within "the faith vote" of whites and blacks where President Bush did well last year.
Like her husband, "she will bring the party back to the center," said Utah state Rep. Neil Hansen. "Should she be the nominee in '08, I think you're going to see a lot of independent women vote for her."
State Rep. Thomas Buco of Conway, N.H., noted that though Clinton "has gotten painted as far out or to the left, if you listen to her, it doesn't sound too liberal."
Doubts persist
Yet, recent polls show that, despite progress in establishing credentials as a pro-defense centrist, some doubts persist.
A June Westhill/Hotline survey showed more people thought a generic woman candidate was tough enough to be president than thought Clinton was. However, 58 percent of those surveyed and 64 percent of independents thought she was tough enough.
Still, Clinton would enter any presidential race in a strong position for a non-incumbent.
Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute whose political pedigree includes stints with the Christian Coalition and Republican Sen. John McCain, likened her position to Ronald Reagan's in the 1980 GOP campaign.
An interesting test could come on the nomination of Judge John Roberts. If nothing seriously negative emerges, a vote for him could show her willingness to buck the party's powerful liberal groups.
She has a role model: Bill Clinton helped himself immeasurably in 1992 by casting himself as a foe of liberal orthodoxy on the death penalty, welfare reform and the anti-white comments of a prominent black rapper, Sister Souljah.
X Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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